Fellow Profile:
Simon Kemp, Domus Fellow in French

Taking up the position of Schools Liaisons Officer for French at the university was not a move calculated to win Somerville Fellow Simon Kemp media publicity and yet, within two months, he had a ten-minute slot on BBC Five Live.

Kemp, French Fellow at Somerville, had begun writing a blog following his appointment, publishing his first post, an entry on the challenges involved in translating J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, on 12 November.

Less than two months later, having just finished reading Alexandre Dumas’ Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers), Kemp noticed that BBC TV was due to screen an adaptation of the 1844 novel, which follows the fortunes of d’Argtagnan and his three swashbuckling friends as they cross swords with enemies across 17th-century France and England.

What had surprised Kemp about the novel, as he put it in his blog post, Are the Three Musketeers allergic to muskets?, was that although it contained plenty of sword-fighting, muskets went almost unmentioned.

“At one point a musketeer suggests taking muskets and another replies not to bother as it’s just a useless burden,” says Kemp. “There’s actually only one point when their own muskets appear, but even then they are just piled up in a heap next to the table they’re playing cards at.”

The absence of muskets, says Kemp, was in fact a narrative necessity for Dumas, since they could not provide the dramatic sequences that swordfights provided.

“The point is that the novel is not about historical accuracy but romance and twirling your sword,” says Kemp. “Dumas just wasn’t interested in shooting from a distance. But if you want to have a story about Cardinal Richelieu and the king and the queen and all those plots going on around them, then you’ve got to have musketeers, because the royal guards were musketeers.”

A greater surprise for Kemp came when BBC Radio 5 asked him to do a ten-minute slot. First, Kemp had to explain why the title was not The Four Musketeers – in fact, d’Artagnan is not a musketeer until the end (so long as you allow for one apparent plot error by Dumas). The radio host then played Kemp the theme tune of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, the children’s TV cartoon which was first screened by the BBC in 1985.

“I recognised it of course as I grew up in the 80s,” says Kemp. “The cartoon was actually more faithful to Dumas than the recent BBC adaptation, which has the characters but not very much of the story.”

Kemp’s media run continued with a slot on Oxford Radio, Channel Islands Radio, and Hereford & Worcester Radio. His blog, of course, has continued too, aiming to encourage 16-18 year-olds to consider studying French at Oxford with recent postings on favourite French words and French film.

Novel thinking

Kemp’s academic focus, however, has been on more recent times, as indicated by the title of his last published book, French Fiction into the Twenty-First Century: The Return to the Story, which looks at five contemporary French authors (Annie Ernaux, Pascal Quignard, Marie Darrieussecq, Jean Echenoz, and Patrick Modiano) to see how far they adopt the theoretical focus of their predecessors.

“People are still doing clever things to tell stories but they’re no longer messing about and deconstructing their stories for the hell of it,” says Kemp. “They usually have some reason for what they are doing, and that reason is in the content. So the form now is in fact being driven by the content.”

Published in 2010, the book also alerted Kemp to elements of Marie Darrieussecq’s writings that he wished to explore further, specifically her interest in neurology, cognitive science and new ideas about the mind. Darieussecq, who was born in the Basque Country in 1969, uses Joycean stream of consciousness techniques, says Kemp, but bases it on her ideas about what consciousness is and how it works.

“I’ve always been a bit frustrated by Freudian analysis, and its take on mothers and fathers, and I thought these new approaches to understanding what the life of the mind was all about were much more interesting,” says Kemp. “Once I’d decided to focus on the 20th century, I had to start with Proust. But it was Darrieussecq who gave me the idea.”

Kemp wanted to focus on the issue of psychoanalysis in 20th century French novels, from the Surrealists of the 1920s to both the existentialist and Catholic novelists of the 1930s and 1940s, right up to the present day. He therefore chose six novelists – Darrieussecq was the last.

“It’s interesting that in the 1930s you have the existentialists taking psychoanalysis in one direction and Catholic writers using it in quite a different way,” says Kemp. “For Mauriac and Bernanos [both Catholic novelists], it’s about describing a mind that is in tune with the creator, a creator who can hear your prayers.”

Marcel Proust, one the other hand, showed contempt for the concept of immortal souls, and wrote about the decline of his narrator’s grandmother (following a stroke) and dissolution of her personality, as very much a product of what is happening to the “physical organ in her head”, Kemp explains. Nevertheless, Proust’s concern was not scientific but experiential, as he wants to recount how things feel, rather than how they are.

This tendency to explain experiences and feelings in terms of biological causes continues in the writings of the novels of Nathalie Sarrault, another of the writers Kemp focuses on in his book. In Sarrault’s view, however, the psychological novel was too quick to label people’s feelings and experiences with labels like “angry” or “scared”.

“She uses biological metaphors instead, to get down to the level of instincts and reflexes, rather than what your conscious mind is doing,” says Kemp. “She to explain the source of the feelings rather than the themselves. That’s why her first book was called Tropisms – a word from botany which means ‘a response to stimuli’.”

Kemp’s book argues that too many psychoanalytic views of novelists end up all saying the same thing, because they read theory into novels, rather than approaching them without a preconceived idea of what consciousness is, and thus trying to see what the novel has to say about the subject. Is this part of the wider retreat from theory?

“Yes, I suppose it’s part of the post-theory terror!” says Kemp. “We now have cognitive science readings and evolutionary science readings coming into literary criticism and there is a danger that, having ditched Freud, we simply sign up to a whole new set of doctrines.

“Neuroscience can tell you which part of the brain is involved in things like jealousy but it can’t tell you why jealousy in Proust is different to jealousy in another author. It cannot do specifics,” says Kemp. “For that, you really need to look at the novels themselves.”


Somerville College is seeking to endow the French fellowship in perpetuity in recognition of the strong heritage of the College in French Studies. André Gide, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, spoke at the College, as guest of renowned scholar of French Literature Enid Starkie, herself a Somerville Fellow and recipient of both a Légion d’Honneur and a CBE. Margaret Davies-Mitchell, who studied at Somerville College and was later appointed an honorary fellow, was also renowned as a scholar of modern French literature. Davies-Mitchell was a member of Academia Europaea and received the Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques.

This is therefore a crucial and historic post for the College. Anyone interested in supporting the French fellowship should contact Sara Kalim, Development Director, at sara.kalim@some.ox.ac.uk

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